PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AT CAROLINA PANTHERS @ 1:00 PM EST on FOX
Broadcast Team: Dick Stockton, Charles Davis, Laura Okmin (Field reporter).
The regular season is finally here and these two teams that are usually playoff contenders will meet in one of Sunday afternoon’s better games. Both squads have a bone to pick with the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals (knocked both out of the playoffs), but that is a conversation for another day. The 2008 NFC South Champion Panthers (12-4) are looking to wash away a disappointing end to their 2008 season where they were embarrassed at home by the Cardinals by a score of 33-13. And the Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) want to justify the high expectations that many “experts’ are predicting for them – some national publications have installed the Eagles as an odds on favorite to win the NFC.
The Birds are coming back after a rollercoaster type 2008 season where many fans and media left them for dead ( 5-5-1 start), but eventually they had a good playoff run (losing in the NFC Championship to the Cardinals 32-25). The Eagles handed out further optimism to their fan base after an offseason that many, including Eagles President Joe Banner, called one of the best in the NFL. The Eagles drafted RB LeSean McCoy, S Victor “Macho” Harris, WR Jeremy Maclin, and others plus brought in solid veterans OL Stacie Andrews, OT Jason Peters, and FB Leonard Weaver to go with existing Pro Bowl players RB Brian Westbrook, QB Donovan McNabb, and DB Asante Samuel. However between the start of training camp and Week 1 of the regular season, the Eagles already have had some adversity to overcome. There was the unfortunate passing of venerable former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and season ending injuries to starting middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and promising rookie tight end Cornelius Ingram.
But don’t expect Eagles head coach Andy Reid or his squad to be crying as they are excited for the start of the 2009 NFL Regular Season and the opportunity to play the Panthers -– record of 8-0 at home in 2008. New Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott recently said, “ I’ll be a little anxious. But, I think that comes with the territory and it comes with the first game of the season every year. No matter how long you’ve been in this game, regardless of whether you’re a player or a coach, there are some butterflies the first opener of every year.” The Eagles know that the time is now to get back to their first Super Bowl since 2004 or there maybe some changes in the offing after the 2009 season.
Conversely the Panthers and their head coach John Fox are trying to get off owner Jerry Richardson’s hot seat – Richardson is so tough, his own sons Mark (former team president) and Jon (former president of the team’s stadium) left in early September rather than dealing with him. The interesting thing is, many Panthers’ fans and media have said a lot of the same things about Jake Delhomme and Fox that Eagles’ fans have said for years about Reid and McNabb. Fox and his quarterback Delhomme were once on the accession after leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003, but after 7 seasons without a championship, many people in Carolina maybe ready for a change.
The Panthers plain and simple want to pound the rock on offense and who could blame them with an O-line led by Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jordan Gross and former first round draft pick Jeff Otah blasting holes for the NFL’s best 1-2 backfield, in my opinion. Carolina’s combination of running backs DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards, 5.5 ypc, and a league leading 18 TDs in 2008) and rookie Jonathan Stewart (836 yards with rookie leading 10 TDs) are probably the NFL’s scariest tandem. Even if Stewart does not play due to a nagging Achilles injury, the Eagles defense (ranked first in the NFC in ’08) led by SS Quintin Mikell and DE Trent Cole will need to play downhill. If the Eagles defense does find a way to stop Williams and Stewart, then they will have to deal with Delhomme and his favorite target Steve Smith through the air. The diminutive Smith (78 receptions for 1,421 yards and 6 TDs) maybe one of the NFL’s smaller receivers at 5’9, but he is one of my favorites due to his toughness, leadership, and uncanny ability to catch Delhomme’s rainbows in traffic. Plus don’t forget about veteran number two Muhsin Muhammad, who is great at moving the chains and in the red zone.
Conversely the Eagles as everyone knows preach that they want balance on offense, but make no bones about it, they are a passing team first. I am sure offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and Reid will look for McNabb (345-571, career-high 3916 yards, 23 TDs, and 11 INTs) many times while trying to spread the ball around — to throw to Westbrook on screens, on the outside to DeSean Jackson, and TE Brent Celek over the middle. McNabb, who recently had his contract restructured, said of the upcoming game, “Everything falls on my shoulders, so that’s nothing different. It’s very important that I make sure I’m prepared going into games like this, to make sure that those other guys have the utmost confidence that I’m going to get them into the right position and we’ll be able to execute”.
We will see if the Eagles will keep true to their goal of achieving balance on offense, but most importantly they cannot forget to establish the run –- have a huge mauling offensive line — against a smaller Panthers attacking defense led by Pro Bowl DE Julius Peppers (14.5 sack for 3rd in the NFC), DT Damione Lewis and tackling-machine MLB Jon Beason. Week 1 will be the first time that the Eagles unveil Westbrook (233 rushes for 936 yards, 4.0 ypr, and 9 TDs) this season after he missed most of training camp following offseason knee and ankle surgeries. B-West truly is the key for the Eagles as he sets the tone for the entire team, so the Birds cannot be afraid to get B-West his touches early and often. If the Eagles can establish Westbrook, look for McNabb to try and go deep to Jackson (62 catches for 912 yards, 14.7 ypc, and 2 TDs), who looks like one of the NFL’s breakout players.
On Defense, the Eagles will look to take a page from the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants by rotating guys on their defensive line (Darren Howard – Team leading 10 sacks in ’08, Trent Cole – 9 sacks, DE Juqua Parker – 5 sacks, DT Mike Patterson, DT Broderick Bunkley, DE Victor Abiameri, DE Chris Clemons, and DE Jason Babin) plus getting linebackers Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither involved in pressuring Delhomme. Any pressure that the front seven can cause should help to neutralize the Panthers running tandem and rattle Delhomme into turning over the ball (six turnovers in loss to Cardinals including 5 INT’s). The Eagles main ball hawk to watch for is Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel (4 INTs plus two in the postseason), who looks better than ever.
LV’s Pick: Though the Eagles usually have been notoriously slow starters under Reid (record of 4-6 on NFL opening weeks), I still believe they will find a way to win. The Eagles lead the regular season series 4-1 and the Panthers have never had back-to-to-back winning seasons in their history. The keys will be the Eagles defense’s ability to stop the run while getting after Delhomme, McNabb hitting Westbrook and Jackson for big plays, and OT Jason Peters rising to the challenge of playing against Peppers. Eagles win in a nail-biter 21-20